Department of Biology
Type of project
Type of project
CRP - Our food, countryside and natural resources
01.10.2022 - 30.09.2025
Project manager at BFSkrbinšek Tomaž
Safe and high-quality food is a fundamental societal need, and of key importance for prosperity and economic growth. To ensure this, confirmation and verification of authenticity - the conformity of food composition with its declaration - is of paramount importance. However, despite the relatively well-developed traceability systems in the EU, in a global economy where long and complex supply chains often transcend continents, it is difficult to ensure traceability of all ingredients. This leaves considerable room for various fraudulent practices, which have been identified as a major global problem.
Although chemical and microbiological analyses are well developed and implemented, and crucial to ensure food safety and quality, taxonomic authentication of food of animal or plant origin is considerably more challenging. The identification of the actual animal or plant species in simple foods is already difficult, with the difficulties exponentially increasing in food products where the raw materials are processed and/or mixed. Such products could contain ingredients other than those declared, cheaper and possibly of lower quality, which would often be difficult to identify. On the other hand, it could also contain ingredients that would grossly violate the ethical or religious beliefs of the consumer, harm their health, or even ingredients unfit for human consumption. While such deviations are a problem for human health and consumer protection, they impact the entire food chain and can have negative impacts on competitiveness, economic growth, nature conservation, and sustainable use of resources.
In parallel with the explosive development of molecular genetics and next generation sequencing (NGS), the field of DNA barcoding and metabarcoding has developed significantly in ecological research over the last two decades. These methods allow for the reliable identification of animal or plant species from DNA samples, while metabarcoding also allows for the determination of the species composition of complex mixed samples. The methods have great potential for monitoring the composition of foodstuffs, but their application is currently rare and mainly used in a research context. Wider availability would allow for a new level of control of food composition throughout the food chain, including the final product on the shelves.
The main objective of the project is to transfer the DNA barcoding and metabarcoding methods we have developed and are using for taxonomic composition analysis in environmental DNA (eDNA) samples to food analytics, thus laying the foundations for rapid, reliable and cost-effective taxonomic compositional analysis of both simple foods as well as composite and processed food products. We will adapt the methods, test them on known food samples of different compositions and optimise the bioinformatic data processing. They will be tested on real samples from the field and their applicability will be compared with methods in routine use. For selected species, we will develop and/or validate methods for the semi-quantitative determination of the proportion of an ingredient in the total sample by barcoding and metabarcoding. We plan to make the methods available to end-users at the end of the project.
We expect that the results of the project and the methods developed will have considerable impacts. They will enable the regulators to detect various fraudulent practices more efficiently, and companies in the food chain to verify the authenticity of raw materials quickly, reliably, and cost-effectively. Improving the authenticity assurance system will enable producers to obtain higher prices for quality food produced in Slovenia. As a result, the economics can be improved and the competitiveness of the agricultural and food-processing sector can be increased, both domestically and abroad. This can have cascading effects and a positive impact on economic growth and the development of Slovenian society.
The phases of the project and their realization
Work package 1: Transfer of metabarcoding methods from eDNA studies of the taxonomic composition of animal diets to the analysis of the taxonomic composition of foods.
Work package 2: Upgrading bioinformatics tools and database for fast automated analyses and efficient handling of results.
Work package 3: Practical application of NGS analysis of the taxonomic composition of foodstuffs on actual field samples and comparison of the NGS method with methods in routine use.
Work package 4: Improving taxonomic resolution for key taxa.
Work package 5: Validation of established semi-quantitative methods for the quantification of the presence of some target taxa in food and semi-quantitative determination of some target taxa by NGS metabarcoding